On the 12th of December 1990, the weather forecast threatened high winds and potential flooding along the North Norfolk coast. For many locals this would not be a cause for celebration, but for Margaret and her husband Harold it meant only one thing: an early start for some fossil hunting.
Born and brought up in Derbyshire, Margaret moved to the North Norfolk coast in the early 1960s, where her love of palaeontology began. She has always had a passion for natural history, and in her adult life this translated into knowledge about many groups including birds and fungi, which she was more than happy to share. The move to North Norfolk brought Margaret and Harold close to the coast and the fossil rich West Runton riverbed, and sparked the enjoyment in fossils. The couple would often stroll along the beach near their West Runton home searching for fossils.
On the morning of the 13th of December, Margaret and Harold were up early with tools and heading down to the beach. The storm had exposed more of the fossil riverbed, and when Margaret spotted a bone sticking out of the cliff she knew she had found something special. It took 4 days of secret digging to unearth the pelvis, with the help of the curator of Cromer museum. The presence of an anklebone next to the impressive pelvis hinted to the true extent of the find, but it was not until more bones were unearthed after a further storm eroded the cliff that an explorative excavation was carried out in January 1992. A three-month excavation in 1995 followed this, and after the first six weeks of digging Margaret joined the excavation, eager to learn more about the find.
The excavation revealed the most complete specimen of the largest mammoth species, a steppe mammoth (Mammuthus trogontherii), ever found, with around 85% of the skeleton surviving. This individual was a 40 year old male, standing an impressive 4 metres high and weighing about 10 tonnes. The fate of this animal is told through the bones; an injury to the right femur suggests that the already injured animal fell into the river and could not stand up, leaving it at the mercy of other trampling mammoths and hungry hyenas.
The mammoth was found in the West Runton freshwater bed, a layer of dark mud which was deposited by a river 6-700,000 years ago. The excavation was thorough; with soil samples containing pollen and bones of small animals such as frogs and birds, and coprolites of the hyenas scavenging on the dead mammoth provide a detailed picture of how the landscape would have looked at the time of the mammoth.
Before they retired both Margaret and Harold Hems worked in education, and were passionate about communicating natural history. After the discovery of the mammoth they were eager to share their knowledge of the history of the North Norfolk coast and the story of the West Runton mammoth, talking to locals and tourists visiting the dig site and to school children from the area. The importance of engaging children in the history of their local area is something that drives Margaret to this day, and she still hopes that one day the whole mammoth can be displayed for everyone to enjoy. Currently some of the bones are displayed at Norwich Castle Museum and Cromer Museum, but the majority of the skeleton is still in storage at Gressenhall.
The significance of the mammoth for palaeontologists is easy to see, but for Margaret the most wonderful part of the discovery is its ability to inspire another generation of Natural History enthusiasts. As she said ‘children love dinosaurs, but the children here have their own treasure’.
Written by Hannah Norman, Margaret’s granddaughter! (@Norman_Han)
Edited by Tori
You can see TrowelBlazers’ own Tori Herridge interviewing Margaret Hems about her mammoth discovery in Channel 4’s Walking Through Time, Saturday 6th Feb, 8pm.
The full scientific findings on the West Runton Mammoth are published in this special issue of Quaternary International. Sadly most are stuck behind a paywall, but if you have access it’s a wonderfully complete study!
Editor’s note: A full-sized replica of the West Runton Mammoth is part of the Norfolk Museums 5-year plan, and so – funding permitting- the Britain’s best mammoth may soon be on display to be enjoyed by children and adults alike.